Emotionalism & the News Media

The television studio of Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar

The rumours had been circulating for weeks: the announcement of a royal engagement was in the offing. Preparations went into high gear at the television news station to cover the announcement. We were all in a state of red-alert.

And then, with little more warning, the big day came.

At the morning editorial meeting it was one story to rule them all. Coverage would run all-day and include interviews with royal watchers, pundits, commentators, members of the excited public – anyone willing to speak.

Meanwhile, a massive fuel barge loaded with three million litres of diesel had become disabled in a bad storm off the Pacific coast of British Columbia, threatening an environmental disaster. That and other important stories had received scant mention, or had fallen under the radar in the early morning hours, because of the news of the upcoming nuptials.

“Would we run any other stories?” I asked a colleague.

“Not a chance. We’re going with wall-to-wall coverage. It’s a royal engagement!”

Hours into the show, the broadcast went live to reveal the happy couple stepping outdoors to face the paparazzi. The would-be bride nonchalantly raised her hand and flashed her diamond ring as the cameras simultaneously zoomed-in. A collection of high-pitched shrieks and sighs rose from several women in the newsroom. The lengthy on-air analysis which followed that moment was accompanied by a breaking news banner in red at the bottom of the screen that read:

“The One-of-a-Kind Royal Ring”

It was all very surreal – but also part of a larger and now familiar trend. When I considered our news coverage from the weeks, months and even years prior – whole daylong cycles of national news devoted to local murder trials, celebrity deaths, and the various scandals de jour – it was clear that the trend over time was to run with stories that were ever more sensational and emotionally loaded. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that society as a whole seemed to be in the grip of the same condition: a preoccupation with high emotion.

Our popular movies have become faster, more violent and peppered with terse dialogue spoken rapid-fire. Extreme division and polarization has hobbled our politics and negated the art of compromise. The tabloidization of even our most respected media organisations continues unabated: political and celebrity scandals have become de rigueur, eliciting disproportionally emotional responses from an entranced public. Social media has amplified our willingness and ability to share our opinions and oppose others – raising the emotional pitch even further.

Traditional Eastern psychology has long warned of the negative consequences of emotional overindulgence – and its distracting and blunting effects. The Sufi writer Idries Shah often wrote that people seek excitement, stimulation and emotion over truth – regardless of what they might otherwise claim. The idea that excessive emotion can interfere in our ability to observe subtleties, make nuanced discriminations and appreciate a wider reality was a major theme of his work.

“Emotion is a powerful consideration in human life,” he writes in Knowing How to Know. “It must be understood.”

It is not hard to appreciate the seductive power of emotionalism. Emotions serve the purpose of drawing and fixing our attention to important circumstances in the environment. They can be visceral and deeply stimulating – evidence that something important is happening – often eliciting a clear-cut reaction rooted in self-certainty. But high emotion, tied as it often is to various forms of self-preservation, causes us to think in the shortcut of absolutes. This black-and-white thinking turns our minds into obtuse instruments incapable of registering subtler shades of the truth.

Nothing seems to summon this very human proclivity to feel and react (as opposed to the more sober and measured effort to understand) as much as the news media. Though news serves an important function in keeping us informed and abreast of developments in the world, as well as being a check on political power, it can often come at a heavy price. It’s a common refrain that the majority of the stories covered in the news are negative. Bad news stories capture audiences because our minds evolved to perceive dramatic and threatening events in our environment. However, this incessant drumbeat of negative and pessimistic stories and images ripples out across society, setting a bleak emotional tempo for our lives.

As a freelance writer and journalist I periodically work at a national television news station where I am able to see how programming and story decisions are made. After the arrival of the Internet, the competition among more and more media for less and less advertising revenue has made news organisations desperate to attract the largest audiences possible. Though they have always sought to grab, hold and monetize our attention, most news companies have crossed a new threshold that have them going for the emotional jugular whenever possible.

The standard approach is to excite, anger, titillate, sadden and entertain audiences using the easiest and cheapest-to-produce stories. More virtuous, investigative, slower, truth-telling journalism – always hard to come by in the best of times – has become that much rarer.

Polemical debates and celebrity stories dominate the news cycle. If the two can be combined, all the better. Crime stories, mostly pertinent to local audiences, are now lifted from their narrower contexts and given national or international coverage. Because our brains are story-processing machines, news is often shaped and framed in a way most easy for us to consume: into archetypal tales in which a good person, suffering at the hands of a villain or exploiter, struggles to find justice. In addition to goading audiences to take sides in a conflict, this tactic also simplifies issues into easy to understand binary positions.

Though excellent and laudable work continues to be produced by some news organisations, they still tend to warp reality through exaggeration, simplification, and excessive repetition – often giving the impression that their stories define all of life and the world at any given moment. But of course the map is not the territory. Our world, in its great complexity and immensity, bears little resemblance to its news-born caricatures. And like the fish that has no idea it is in water because it is surrounded by it, whole newsrooms have become largely unconscious of what they are doing: sewing large scale anxiety throughout society.

We need to recognize these dynamics and their influence on our individual and collective emotional states.

So, how do we avoid having our emotions manipulated without tuning-out of media completely – or cutting ourselves off from the world?

A two-pronged approach might be taken. The first is to be parse and nimble in our consumption of information, an approach which could include:

1. Choosing news sources that are more likely to look at the bigger picture, and less likely to harp on the petty and trivial.

2. Periodically attaching and detaching our attention from the news instead of incessantly monitoring or binging on it.

3. Trying to see any story from as many different perspectives as possible, as opposed to just the one or two sides that tend to actually be represented.

4. Questioning the accuracy, relevance and importance of any given story – even those from the most reputable news organisations.

5. Combining, contextualizing and hedging any news with our own personal observations and experiences – and those of informed contacts. Sometimes our experiences, and those of people we know, will provide exceptions to, or will contradict, what the news is telling us.

6. Discovering other “news” in the world that we’re not hearing about in the mainstream – including, and especially, developments that are positive.

The second approach is to find ever-more satisfaction in our own lives – in our work, hobbies and projects. When we are healthily engaged in undertakings that are genuinely satisfying and stretching, we are less prone to pettiness and seeking stimulus from elsewhere – including from sensational news stories that are fundamentally not relevant to our lives.

Polemical, fear-inducing and/or sensational news media stories are the “bread and games” of our age. The more we can free our thoughts and emotions from the loops of neuroses they might induce, the more capacity we might have for seeing and appreciating the less thrilling, yet more holistic, weaves of nuance about our world that might more accurately depict it.